A few weeks back I suggested the new Copernicans think in 3D. It turns out that falls short. Dr. Paul J. Zak is one of the new Copernicans. The closer you look at his work, the more angles you see. The new Copernicans see things in 4D… 5D…
Copernicus saw the solar system in 3D, Aristarchus + trigonometry + Ptolemy. There’s a growing group of people, most of them young, thinking like him. However, their issues revolve around the environment, livable cities, the global economy, or work that aims at human flourishing and not just ROI and the bottom line. They’re new Copernicans.
The new Copernicans feel we live in a 2D world where issues are presented as either/or. You’re a crony capitalist or a crazed environmentalist. Doesn’t work. Today’s Copernicans view life in 3D… 4D… 5D. They’re drawn to triple bottom-line companies (planet, people, and profits) that operate with a more expansive view of business.
This is why new Copernicans can’t stand 2D dichotomies such as science or religion. Neuroimaging indicates this is impossible. The right hemisphere is broadly vigilant, asking big questions. The left is narrowly focused. To see issues from all sorts of angles, the right hemisphere repeatedly rebinds the two hemispheres, yielding more complete knowledge of how things work. Rebinding is from the Latin religio, or religion. Knowledge is from the Latin science. The human brain is wired for science and religion.
This might be why over 20 percent of the US population self-identify as religious “nones.” They’re not drawn to 2D either/or religions – I’m right and you’re entirely wrong. Of course, neuroimaging tells us you cannot be a “none.” You’re religious whether you like it or not. It’s probably the case that when religion was 3D, providing a wide-angle view of the world, it was compelling. Today, it’s 2D, so religious nones have tuned out. The role of religion is now assumed by stories. Stories are the functional equivalent of religion today. Stories are how new Copernicans, some of them religious nones, organize their lives and make sense of them. Take Paul Zak.
Zak is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. His team is connecting the dots between neuroscience and good storytelling. It was recently hired by a hospital to tell the story of a two-year-old boy dying of cancer. The hospital wanted to elicit empathy in viewers as well as encourage generous giving to cancer research. Two films were created. The first raised a tension. The boy was happy but didn’t know he’d be dead in a few months. The father did. How could he happily play with his son knowing the boy would soon be dead? It was heart-breaking. The second film was different. It was heart-warming. Same story but without the tension.
Both stories were well received and elicited empathy. But only the first yielded increased generosity. Viewers gave more money after watching it. Zak’s team wanted to know why. They asked respondents but the answers were vague and unhelpful. So the research team decided to measure neurological indicators such as brain waves, respiratory response, and electrical impulses while showing both films to a new group.
Zak’s team discovered the first film, the heart-breaking story, elicited two emotions – distress and empathy. Distress releases cortisol, a chemical in the brain. It focuses attention. Empathy released a chemical in the brain called oxytocin. The more oxytocin is released, the more empathic we feel toward others. The second film, the heart-warming one, only elicited one emotion, empathy. Empathy alone doesn’t change behavior. Many studies support this finding.1 The combination of distress along with empathy is what changes behavior. Effective stories break your heart while warming it.
This correlates with Gustav Freytag’s theory of storytelling. In 1863, the German playwright and novelist wrote Die Technik des Dramas. It became the definitive study of the 5-act dramatic structure, or the dramatic arc of a story. Effective storytelling starts with exposition, then rising action (distress), climax, falling action, and finally dénouement (i.e., resolution). When there’s no distress, the story does not change your life. Zak is adding Freytag plus neuroimaging to better understand effective storytelling.
But there’s more. Filmmakers know good storytelling requires an “inciting incident.”2 Musicians know this as well. Western tonal music is compelling because of its arc – home, away (distress), return, home. It’s the same story but in 4D. Then there’s Wondros (www.wondros.com/). They see the world as rapidly moving towards a landscape where art and science, design and engineering are inseparable. They call it 5D.
Then there’s the ancient gospel – creation, fall, redemption, and the final restoration. It follows the dramatic arc, introducing distress in the opening line – the earth was “formless and void.” Something sinister is lurking in the bushes, Lucifer and his legions. It’s likely the new Copernicans would find the gospel story, told this way, to be compelling. Many seek a Deos (God) or the Other (Iain McGilchrist). If the church started telling the gospel story in 4D… 5D… many Copernicans might end up at God.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 David Brooks, “The Limits of Empathy” the New York Times, September 20, 2011.
2 “Storytelling That Moves People: A Conversation with Hollywood Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003.